India has passed a grim milestone of 20 million Covid-19 cases amid growing calls for the country to go into a national lockdown.
On Tuesday, India reported 357,229 new cases over the last 24 hours, while the number of deaths rose by 3,449 as a deadly wave of the virus showed no signs of relenting. Many health experts believe India’s true death toll to be five to 10 times higher than official data.
As the country continued to grapple with oxygen shortages and a lack of hospital beds and ICU facilities for coronavirus patients, as well as crematoriums overloaded with bodies, the Indian opposition leader Rahul Gandhi called for a nationwide lockdown.
“The only way to stop the spread of corona now is a full lockdown,” said Gandhi on Twitter. He said the government’s “inaction is killing many innocent people”.
Many of India’s worst-hit states and cities are under regional lockdowns, including Delhi and Mumbai, but the prime minister, Narendra Modi, has resisted imposing a countrywide lock because of the huge economic toll it would take.
India’s first nationwide lockdown, imposed in March 2020, caused a disastrous humanitarian crisis among day-wage workers and pushed an estimated 75 million people into poverty.
However, the relentless surge in Covid-19 cases is bringing India’s health system to its knees. On Monday, as many as 23 patients died in a hospital in the state of Karnataka when oxygen supplies ran low.
In a significant ruling, the Delhi high court announced it would start punishing government officials if supplies of oxygen allocated to hospitals were not delivered. “Enough is enough,” it said.
The capital, Delhi, meanwhile, marked its most deadly day of the pandemic on Monday, with 448 Covid-19 fatalities.
Outside the gates of the city’s Lok Nayak hospital, with 1,500 Covid-19 beds which are all full, the ongoing desperation of the situation was visible. Ambulances with critical patients were repeatedly turned away because there was no room.
In one ambulance lay Hasima Begum, 60, gasping for air as her oxygen levels had crashed to a deadly 30%.
“We’ve been to four hospitals already this morning but nowhere has any beds,” said her 17-year-old grandson M D Kaif. “They say she’s got maybe 10 minutes to live if we can’t get her oxygen and a bed.”
As the family waited outside the gates, they were presented with a consent form to sign, stating that it was not the fault of the ambulance or the hospital if Begum died without admission. “We are helpless, what can we do now?” said Kaif.
As soon as one ambulance left, three others turned up in their place, all with Covid-19 patients in severe distress. Sasi Devi, 47, lay on a stretcher in the back of an ambulance. This was the sixth time her family had brought her here in the hope of admission.
“Give me poison, end this pain,” Devi rasped. But her son returned from the hospital gates, shaking his head. “No oxygen cylinder, no bed,” he said quietly. “So now we will take her home to die.”
Others waited for their dead to be returned. Priyanka Gupta, 29, sobbed as she said she had been waiting all day to reclaim the body of her mother, 57-year-old Rita Devi.
“Yesterday for six hours my mother was kept waiting outside this hospital but they would not let her in even when her oxygen fell to 19%,” said Gupta. “It was only when she was dead that they finally took her inside the hospital, and now I don’t know when I can get her body back.”